Latin America & Caribbean

Tech bus brings hope to Chile's earthquake-hit regions

A group in Chile has found an innovative way to talk about technology to children affected by an earthquake earlier this year. Irene Caselli reports from Iloca on how the project is connecting coastal communities with the wider world.

Image caption Learning new skills on the technology bus

It's 8am and several children are making their way to school in Iloca. It is a small town of 2,000 people on the Chilean coast which was badly hit by the earthquake and tsunami.

Three months on, the destruction is still evident.

As winter approaches and temperature drops, some people are still living in tents, while others are putting together provisional housing provided by the government.

The marks left by the sea are still visible and the coastline has changed radically.

Image caption Schools were badly damaged by the quake

On their way to school every day, children pass by piles of rubble, including that of their old school building, left barely standing by the sea.

But today a colourful bus awaits them in front of their new school, and the excitement is great.

Ruta Tamo (short for Mobile Workshop Route in Spanish) is a bus equipped with wireless internet connection and laptops with plenty of software.

It has been visiting some of the most affected areas in the Maule region, some 250km south of the capital, Santiago.

The idea behind the project - launched by Santiago's Catholic University - is to use digital technology to bring mobile workshops to children and adults.

"With this bus we want to bring technology closer to them, we want to teach them how to use it so that they can feel closer to the rest of the world," says Soledad Fernandez, one of the organisers of the project.

"We want them to take advantage of the earthquake as an opportunity to start again from scratch using the knowledge and skills that we're helping them acquire."

Simple technology

One of the piece of software Ruta Tamo uses is an open-source programme called Scratch, which was developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

It is based on a simple drag and drop technique and allows younger children to create stories by moving main characters around the screen.

Older children are introduced to Google Earth and Google SketchUp to work in 3D and rebuild the areas that were destroyed by the earthquake.

Through this process they also get to apply subjects that they are learning at school such as geometry and geography.

They are also taught about social networking sites so that if there is another earthquake, they can exchange vital information with outside groups.

Six-year-old Patricio is one of the few on the bus who is at ease in front of a computer.

He shows one of his classmates how to use a mouse and how to take pictures with a webcam - the result of his experience using a computer at home. But he is an exception.

Image caption The project gets support from many private sponsors

Another one of his classmates used to have a computer at home, but it was swept away by the tsunami together with the rest of his house. And most other children had never used a computer before.

This area is very rural and people have limited income.

Iloca's economy was mainly based on fishing and summer tourism - and it has become more isolated after the quake.

Getting an internet connection is quite an achievement here, and there is hardly any mobile phone reception since many of the radio towers were destroyed by the quake.

For the teachers, this project is very important not only because it gives children new skills, but also because it helps them psychologically.

"This is fantastic," says teacher Juana Reyes. "They look like happy kids here. We need to encourage them so that they can also be happy at home.

"That way they can lift the spirits of their parents too. So that we can say, it happened, but it's now over."

Online business

Children are not the only beneficiaries of the Ruta Tamo project.

In the afternoon, classes move outside the bus and they are aimed at adults. They show artisans and fishermen how to sell their products online.

"This is important because they have a very small market here, but they have really good products, such as handicrafts, fish and pastries, and the idea is to help them open up to a larger market by using the internet," says Ms Fernandez.

Image caption Many people are still living in temporary shelters

"Sometimes they even feel far away from Santiago, the capital city. Through this they're not just closer to Santiago but to many foreign countries."

Ruta Tamo introduces artisans to an e-commerce web host to put together an online shop that can be used by the whole community. The team also gives a basic workshop on how to access micro-credit and other funds to finance their activities and basic legal and technical knowledge to set up a business.

"These people don't have a second place to work besides their homes, and many of them were destroyed," says Andres Arellano, another one of the team members.

Image caption The Ruta Tamo team is planning to make more visits to affected areas

"Right now in the 21st Century we need to take advantage of the possibility of building by using bytes rather than bricks… And this is exactly what we're doing with our project."

After its initial two-week tour across the region, the plan is for Ruta Tamo to return in July and then again later in the year. However, work on establishing permanent relationships with schools and municipalities will continue without interruption.

Questions remain as to whether the project can help transform February's catastrophe into new opportunities.

However, judging from the children's enthusiasm here, it seems that technology is giving them the strength of imagination and allowing them to think about how to rebuild their homes and towns from scratch.

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